05/01/2010 12:00AM

Pletcher keeps on plugging

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Barbara D. Livingston
Devil May Care gallops without blinkers on Thursday at Churchill Downs, but she will be equipped with them for her Kentucky Derby start.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Considering the hundreds of horses he gets to train each year, the quality of the stock in his barn, and the success he has had in the nearly 15 years he has been a head trainer, no one needs to start taking up a collection anytime soon for Todd Pletcher. Yet this week at Churchill Downs, Pletcher has had a dramatic story arc, going from a trainer who seemingly had a hammerlock on the 136th Kentucky Derby on Saturday, with multiple entries, to a sympathetic figure.

Pletcher still has four horses - Discreetly Mine, Mission Impazible, Super Saver, and the filly Devil May Care - in the race. But his quest to win his first Derby and turn back the highly regarded California-based pair of Lookin At Lucky and Sidney's Candy was dealt a severe blow when the acknowledged favorite, Eskendereya, had to be pulled out of the race last weekend with inflammation in his left front leg. Everywhere Pletcher has gone around town this week, he has had people wishing him luck and offering him condolences, all in the same sentence.

"At a function for the Racetrack Chaplaincy, the Derby trainer's dinner, here at the track, a lot of people have said stuff," Pletcher said while watching his Derby runners school in the paddock on Wednesday afternoon. "A lot of it is people were looking forward to seeing Eskendereya run in the Derby. It's disappointing for everybody.

"Some people were writing that we were going to run seven in the race. Well, it was never that. Interactif was never going to run. Rule just was not training well. We've still got four good horses. It's not like all the wheels fell off. Just the big one."

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Pletcher has a comrade in arms in the WinStar Farm of Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt. The week began with WinStar having four possible Derby runners. But then Rule was pulled out, and on Wednesday, Endorsement was injured. Now WinStar is down to two - American Lion, who is trained by Eoin Harty, and Super Saver, who could prove to be an aptly named salvation for Pletcher and WinStar.

There's a little something for everybody in this Derby. A filly, Devil May Care, taking on 19 males. A 2-year-old champion, Lookin At Lucky, trying to prove the best of his generation at 3. Horses who want to be on the lead, like Conveyance and Line of David, horses who want to be close to the lead, like Sidney's Candy and Discreetly Mine, and horses who come from way downtown, like Ice Box.

There are horses who are coming off big wins on synthetic surfaces, like Sidney's Candy, Dean's Kitten, and Stately Victor, a horse (Homeboykris) owned in part by Dodgers baseball manager Joe Torre, another (Noble's Promise) owned by a group of everyday folks from Kentucky, and one (Stately Victor) owned in part by Kentucky's state attorney general. Backtalk is trying to follow in the hoofsteps of his father, Smarty Jones, who won the Derby in 2004.

There are veteran jockeys, like Mike Smith, 44, who has won the Derby before, and a rookie Derby jockey, like Joe Talamo, 20, who was born nearly six years after Smith rode in his first Derby. Make Music for Me is trained by a woman, Alexis Barba, and Awesome Act is trained by a chap, Jeremy Noseda, based in Newmarket, England. American Lion is named for former President Teddy Roosevelt. Sidney's Candy is named for the late husband of owner Jenny Craig, the diet guru. There are big horses, like Line of David, and a very, very small horse, like Jackson Bend.

Like this country, America's most famous race is one big melting pot, and a big slice of Americana, a crowd of some 150,000, is expected to stuff itself into this historic track to see it.

With 20 runners, the Derby's purse will be $2,185,200, with $1,425,200 going to the winner. The money is secondary. They could run the race for a gold trophy and slice of Derby pie, and it would still be coveted, such is its allure. Trainers who have won it before, like Bob Baffert, Rick Dutrow, D. Wayne Lukas, and Nick Zito, are back again, saying once you have won the Derby, all you want to do is have that feeling again.

When Big Brown turned for home in 2008, "it was the best feeling I've ever had," Dutrow said Thursday morning outside the barn where his longshot, Homeboykris, is stabled. "I want to do that again. I want to get the feeling."

"It's a difficult race to win," said Elliott Walden, the general manager of WinStar Farm, who as a trainer finished second in this race twice. "There's an element of luck because of the size of the field and the trip horses get."

Trips will be paramount in this race. Lookin At Lucky, the morning-line favorite of both Mike Watchmaker of Daily Racing Form and Mike Battaglia of Churchill Downs, drew the rail, and thus will have to extricate himself from a potentially tricky spot. Sidney's Candy, the second choice of both linemakers, is marooned in post 20, and will have a little more than a quarter-mile to try and get over and secure a decent position before the first turn of the 1 1/4-mile race.

Lookin At Lucky is removing blinkers for this race after having them in his last two starts. Devil May Care is adding blinkers - she has worked strongly in them since her last victory. As a filly racing against males, Devil May Care gets a five-pound weight break (121-126) from her rivals.

The Derby field is double-loaded in the starting gate. Posts 1 and 11 go in the gate first, then 2 and 12, on down to 10 and 20. They are usually sent away expediently as soon as the last horse is loaded, and a few minutes later, one of them will have roses draped across their withers.

The Derby will be the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern. Post time for the Derby is scheduled for 6:24 p.m. The Derby will be shown live on NBC in a three-hour telecast beginning at 4 p.m. ESPN will show much of the undercard in a five-hour telecast beginning at 11 a.m.

Preceding the Derby are five graded stakes races, two of which are Grade 1, including the Humana Distaff, featuring last year's champion female sprinter, Informed Decision.

When the horses come on the track, "My Old Kentucky Home" will be sung, but the first four words - "The sun shines bright" - might be incongruous to the setting. A 50-percent chance of rain was forecast for Friday night into Saturday morning, and a 70-percent chance of rain on Saturday, including scattered thunderstorms, with a high temperature of 76 degrees.

Kentucky Derby 136

Post Horse Jockey Weight Odds
1 Lookin At Lucky Garrett Gomez 126 3-1
2 Ice Box Jose Lezcano 126 10-1
3 Noble's Promise Willie Martinez 126 12-1
4 Super Saver Calvin Borel 126 15-1
5 Line of David Rafael Bejarano 126 30-1
6 Stately Victor Alan Garcia 126 30-1
7 American Lion David Flores 126 30-1
8 Dean's Kitten Robby Albarado 126 50-1
9 Make Music For Me Joel Rosario 126 50-1
10 Paddy O'Prado Kent Desormeaux 126 20-1
11 Devil May Care John Velazquez 121 10-1
12 Conveyance Martin Garcia 126 12-1
13 Jackson Bend Mike Smith 126 15-1
14 Mission Impazible Rajiv Maragh 126 20-1
15 Discreetly Mine Javier Castellano 126 30-1
16 Awesome Act Julien Leparoux 126 10-1
17 Dublin Terry Thompson 126 12-1
18 Backtalk Miguel Mena 126 50-1
19 Homeboykris Ramon Dominguez 126 50-1
20 Sidney's Candy Joe Talamo 126 5-1